How the Medical Marijuana Industry Is Impacting Big Pharma

May 16, 2017
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With medical marijuana currently legal in its various forms in 28 states and upwards of 1.2 million people using this alternative to traditional medication, this trend is starting to impact the pharmaceutical industry. What impact is medical marijuana having on big Pharma and how can we expect the industry to change in the future because of this legalization?

Despite its reputation, medical marijuana has been studied repeatedly to determine its safety and efficacy. Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have found that, when used as a medical aid, marijuana is beneficial for patients with a variety of different conditions ranging from seizures and epilepsy to chronic pain and even addiction.

By following the same clinical trial procedures that FDA approved drug has to pass to be prescribed to patients, researchers have begun to dispel some of the myths surrounding this medication.

Big Pharma is running out of reasons to oppose full-scale legalization for medical marijuana — despite its efforts.

Medical Marijuana as a Replacement for Opioids

Pain is a profitable business for pharmaceutical companies — a $13.2 billion market to be precise. The problem with that part of the industry is that doctors primarily prescribe opioid painkillers for patients to manage their chronic pain. Many medical professionals prefer prescribing painkillers to medical marijuana because the opioids have been proven effective for the treatment of chronic pain.

Unfortunately, those same pain-relieving drugs are addictive, leading to more than two million people developing a related substance abuse disorder every year and over 20,000 deaths due to opioid overdose.

Medical marijuana can be used as a replacement for these painkillers, with multiple studies showing its effectiveness for both chronic pain and neuropathic pain. It could potentially be used to wean people off opioid pain relievers as well since cannabis has been shown to reduce the use of opioids and help with withdrawal symptoms that occur after someone stops taking prescription pain relievers.

While not everyone will choose to replace their opioids with medical marijuana, more people making the switch means fewer people who could become addicted to prescription pain medication. This sounds great on paper, but it’s a big hit to big pharma’s bottom line — addiction pays big.

Marijuana Means Better Medical Options

If you’ve spent any time looking into medical marijuana, you’ve probably heard the story of Charlotte Figi, a child who started having seizures at three months old. By the time she was two, she was having seizures every day with some lasting for hours at a time. These seizures were eventually diagnosed as Dravet Syndrome, and it prevented her from reaching her childhood milestones.

She didn’t respond to any of the treatments or medications provided by the doctors Charlotte had seen during her young life.

A ketogenic diet did help control the seizures for a couple of years, but then they came back with a vengeance — Charlotte was having 300+ seizures every single week. Her heart had even stopped during some of these seizures, and, when she was 5, medical professionals gave up, saying there was nothing more they could do for her.

Charlotte’s parents decided to try medical marijuana. A low THC, high CBD strain of marijuana called R4 was treated to extract the oil, and Charlotte was given a small dose of the oil, and her seizures stopped. A low THC strain of marijuana was even named in her honor — Charlotte’s Web.

Stories like these are popping up nearly every day — people who exhausted all the current options offered by the medical and pharmaceutical industries, turning to medical marijuana to see their symptoms reduced drastically.

This is changing lives, but it’s also negatively impacting the pharmaceutical industry. You can’t prescribe someone an expensive cocktail of drugs and treatments if they’re able to successfully treat their symptoms or conditions with the application of medical marijuana.

The Impact of Normalizing Medical Marijuana

The University of Georgia has found prescriptions are dropping in states with medical marijuana programs. Specifically, prescriptions of pain medication, anti-anxiety pills, antidepressants, seizure medication and even nausea medication are dropping as people choose medical marijuana instead of traditional prescriptions.

That same study found that this change in prescriptions cost pharmaceutical companies approximately $165 million in 2013. Country-wide legalization, even if the drug isn’t legalized for recreational use, could cost the industry even more.

This hasn’t stopped Big Pharma from fighting back. For years, they’ve funded anti-cannabis propaganda and donated money to groups opposing marijuana legislation to keep states from legalizing marijuana for medical use. This is the newest incarnation of the war on drugs — instead of arresting drug dealers on the corner Big Pharma is going after legislators trying to do right by their constituents by legalizing cannabis.

They’ve also funded a synthetic THC based medication that has just hit the shelves. The kicker — this synthetic version of marijuana is classified as a ‘Schedule 2’ drug. Drugs in Schedule 2 are supposed to have a high potential for abuse. It’s right up there with cocaine, meth and methadone, but it can still be prescribed — other Schedule 2 drugs include things like Oxycodone, Ritalin and Adderal.

Marijuana, on the other hand, is classified as Schedule 1 — drugs the federal government feel have no medical use or benefit. It’s on the same level as heroin, LSD and peyote.

The fight for medical marijuana has just begun. States are slowly legalizing the drug for medical use while the FDA’s classification suggests it’s an illegal drug that shouldn’t be used at all. Doctors find themselves caught in the middle. Many are hesitant to prescribe marijuana even if it has been legalized in their state for fear of running afoul of the federal government.

Pharmaceutical companies won’t stop holding tight to their cash cow, even if that cow is killing their customers.